Architect Shahid Abdulla has about him an air that is vaguely professorial. Perhaps it is the way he dices the air with his hand when he talks about things of particular interest to him; perhaps it is the measured, almost philosophical manner in which he answers questions (“I ask you, why does one need a house?”). He is one-half of the architectural practice called Arshad Shahid Abdulla, a firm responsible for such projects as the MCB Tower and the Kidney Centre; the other half is his elder brother, Arshad Abdulla.
“How about we begin with some biographical details,” I propose, oddly self-conscious. “How it all began for you. I mean, as an architect.”
“How it all began,” he repeats, then looks at me wearily. “You know, they all ask this same question, they all begin with that.”
Clearly, unoriginality irks this architect. Crestfallen, crimson-cheeked, I rush to assure him that I intend to tackle the interview in a more creative manner. He studies me for a moment — then begins
“We came from a large business family. Growing up, we were very close; we were, after all, only a year and a half apart in age. We shared a room, shared clothes — not everyone, back then, was a slave to fashion.
“You had to have a hobby in those days. There was always some sort of construction going on round the house — our father was very handy with things — so we too began tinkering around. Someone suggested, at some point, that we become architects.
“This was a new idea. In the '50s, in Pakistan, the concept of an architect didn't really exist you had the engineer sahib and the workforce — there was no in-between. Naturally, therefore, there were no architectural schools in the country.”
The brothers turned their faces westwards. Arshad Abdulla, the elder of the two, enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Shahid Abdulla joined him in Illinois a year later; he enrolled instead at the University of Illinois because “Well, the idea of going to the same school as my brother wasn't particularly appealing at that point.”
It was, in the long run, a fortunate separation. “The philosophy of architectural thought propounded in these two institutes was diametrically different. One said, everything begins with that bare minimum, a box; the other instructed you to question why a box? Why of all things a box?
“The result has been, I think, a happy blend Arshad is the meticulous one in the partnership; as for myself, I'm more of a hip-shooter — anything goes, really.”
Is this then, I wonder, the classic 'form versus functionality' debate?
Shahid Abdullah shakes his head thoughtfully. “No... not exactly. I also believe that form ought to follow functionality — I'm not going to put things in if they have no function.” He pauses for a moment, then rises. “Have my seat for a moment. I want you to see what I see when I sit here.”
We switch places. I take a closer look round the room. It is a snug, busy-looking place photo-frames jostle one another for space; in a corner, by the window, a money plant unfurls leaves of a startling green. My attention is, however, immediately directed towards a half-length mirror nestled in the far nook of the room reflected in it is a large part of the rest of the office. The effect is drastic that single mirror in a corner gives immediate depth to the wee little room.
“I wanted a room with relative privacy but, at the same time, didn't wish to be entirely disconnected from the rest of the workplace. Positioning the mirror in precisely that manner did the trick.
“Simple solutions. Look at the floor we positioned those tiles — simple clay tiles, by the way — in that diagonal manner not on a whim or because they looked good that way; placing them in that manner makes the room look more spacious. We needed that.”
He smiles, triumphant at the ingenuity of the tactic. “It's a basic concept. The same reason why fat women don't wear horizontal stripes.”
I ask Abdulla what students of architecture would learn from reviewing the body of projects that he and his firm have completed.
“Well, I'm hardly the person to answer this question. I think you should ask them, the students; in fact, you can ask them right now.”
Bisma is beckoned. A graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), Karachi, she has been working with the firm for a year and a half. I ask her what she has gleaned from their work so far.
“There's a lot to learn. I had Shahid Sahib as a teacher, so learning began even earlier. The work done here is simple, it's easily understood. But it's heartfelt. Honest. There's a lot of directness. We keep it simple but creative.”
“There's very little want involved,” her teacher breaks in. “There's a difference between what you need and what you want. Many architects talk about 'high design'; we don't do that here.”
Talk of needs and wants brings me to another question what role ought architects play in matters such as finding solutions to low-cost housing? Climate change? Heritage preservation?
“I think we do attempt to do our part. The TCF schools, for instance we always try to ensure that we give the maximum for the very minimum amount [of money]. We don't paint the houses we construct; we leave them plastered. When the Nusserwanjee Building was being pulled down, it was dismantled and carried, stone by stone, to Clifton. We're currently working on restoring the Cotton Exchange Building.”
I take a stab at one last question. Is there a particular space in Karachi that Shahid Abdulla would take someone to if he were showing them the perfect Karachi space or moment?
His answer is almost instantaneous. “Empress Market. You meet such a cross-section of people there. And after all, it's the most successful shopping mall that we have.”
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